In her new documentary, Jenny Phillips frames the daily, shackled grind of prisoners' lives with social injustices, but also investigates what it is like to be a prisoner doing hard time in the South choosing to practice guided Buddhist meditation techniques. Tensions run high in many neighborhoods, and believe it or not, there are still bad feelings haunting the state that seem to be leftover from the Civil Rights battles that were waged there more than 50 years ago. Like any state with modern problems that revolve around race and class, there are obviously both good and bad things about Alabama, but overall, I found that there is not a lot of joy to spare.
In her new documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, Phillips frames the daily, shackled grind of the prisoners’ lives with these social injustices, but also investigates, with a fresh, clear perspective, what it is like to be a prisoner doing hard time in the South choosing to practice guided Buddhist meditation techniques.
Deep within this facility’s walls, an unlikely group of inmates (some on death row) are challenging all of the stereotypes and misconceptions about the South, about prisoners, about masculinity, and about the modern spirituality of the incarcerated. Practiced in prisons in countries like India with great success, Vipassana is an ancient, rigorous practice based on the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings. The 36 participants at Donaldson had already, in a sense, given their lives to the system in committing their crimes, many of them serving congruent life sentences without hope of parole. Phillips, who has worked in prisons in Massachusetts for many years, cleverly brings up the age old questions of how prisoners should actually be treated, while exploring their right to religious freedom. Drugs, gambling, and prostitution of other inmates are a mere sampling of the infractions taking place within the walls of the prison, and former warden Stephen Bolland, when interviewed by Phillips, likened what goes on inside Donaldson to what happens in any major city plagued by organized crime, as if it was both uncontrollable and to be expected. The filmmaker presents a balanced account of the program, the men’s lives and personal stories, as well as the injustices visited upon the men in a corrupt system. Silhouette of prisoners practicing Vipassana meditation in Jenny Phillips’ THE DHAMMA BROTHERS. The circumstances of these men’s incarcerations extend far beyond their actual crimes.
In a smart move, Phillips includes a vignette of man-on-the-street interviews with denizens of the state, who had mostly negative opinions of both the program and of prisoners in general. Though the instructors, Jonathan Crowley and Bruce Stewart (of the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusettes), had no previous background in corrections, they gamely packed their gear and moved into a cell to live amongst the violent offenders—another first that Phillips said was tough to make happen. The five precepts of Vipassana are: no intoxicants (of any kind), no killing, no stealing, no lying, and no sexual misconduct.
Sequestered away in a gymnasium, away from the general population of inmates, the Dhamma Brothers were sealed in, and once the door was closed, there was no turning back. Through this deeply spiritual, albeit pragmatic and scientific technique, viewers are shown that most of these men don’t neatly fit the stereotypes of prisoners that are so widespread in our culture. Johnny Mack Young participates in an extended Vipassana retreat with other prisoners from Donaldson Correctional Facility near Birmingham, Alabama, in Jenny Phillips’ film The Dhamma Brothers.
The changes that one goes through doing a stretch of time like he is, the transformation that must happen out of necessity and survival, leave very little room for exploring personal identity.
In 2002, the Dhamma Brothers were forbidden to meditate, despite the positive outcomes of the initial session, seemingly as a result of religious panic.
In keeping with what they had been taught, the Brothers took this obstacle in stride, without negativity. To watch men who had no hope, or thought that everything was over, now connect and become better people in this unfair situation is a profoundly moving experience.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking lesson comes from Grady Bankhead, a former death row inmate rescued from execution the day before he was scheduled to die by a defense attorney. During his incarceration, Bankhead learned that his own daughter, who was left fatherless after he was imprisoned for life, was sexually assaulted and murdered as an adult. It is an astonishing moment of clarity for the man, one that proves that Vipassana has worked on at least one Donaldson inmate, and proves there is hope for reshaping and rehabilitating the most hardened offenders.
The Dhamma Brothers opens in New York City at Cinema Village on April 11th with subsequent premieres in Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle in the weeks following.
Matt Mazur is a Brooklyn-based film publicist who works on campaigns for documentaries, independent and foreign language films. The Dhamma BrothersShowtimes“The stories of the Dhamma Brothers ring with the truth and power of their experiences, and offer the hope for renewal and rehabilitation within a dismal and punishment-oriented correctional system. There is no charge for attending, but we will be accepting donations for the Vipassana Prison Trust to help bring this program to more inmates around the US. An overcrowded, violent maximum-security prison, the end of the line in Alabama's prison system, is dramatically changed by the influence of an ancient meditation program.
The Dhamma Brothers tells a dramatic tale of human potential and transformation as it closely follows and documents the stories of the prison inmates at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama as they enter into this arduous and intensive program.
This event is offered free of charge, but we will be accepting donations for the Vipassana Prison Trust to help bring this program to more inmates around the US. Na prisao de Seguranca maxima de Donaldson, no Alabama, onde tem um populacao carceraria de mais de mil homens, todos cumprindo prisao perpetua ou pena de morte. O resultado voce ve neste fantastico documentario que exibe as historias de 36 detentos que passam pela experiencia e suas mudancas. There are distinct racial, political, economic, and religious battles being waged on a daily basis in the streets it seems. The proliferation of flying Confederate flags, bumper stickers and license plates is only the insidious tip of that particular iceberg. No offense to the good, hard-working folks who live there, but I have lived there too, and having taken in its moribund charms, I have no desire to ever go back for fear I might be gay-bashed by a white supremacist while trying to enjoy my succulent barbeque. They, in fact, were transcending these trappings by practicing Vipassana, an intense, silent, ten-day crash course induction into a sacred world many of the inmates had likely never even heard of until Donaldson became the first prison in the United States to give it a try.
Ron Cavanaugh, Director of Treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections, decided to throw caution to the wind and try something revolutionary and unprecedented.
In one of the most conservative, right-wing Christian, dangerous corners of the South, it was about to make its stateside debut.
It could also be said that they gave their lives a second time, to affect social change and bring basic humanity for prisoners back into the equation. Are they simply the property of the (allegedly) financially-strapped state, who should be locked away and forgotten about? Phillips’ interesting depiction of masculinity in the Deep South is a celebratory change of pace. These men are not portrayed as desperate saints searching for distraction from the long hours of toil, but as human beings searching for meaning in a very limited situation.

Many point to the economic despair and poverty that permeates the region as a primer for their transgressions, which shares points of intersection with racism, xenophobia, class, and more.
That a camera crew was allowed into the prison in the first place was somewhat of a feat, but to engrain two green spiritual leaders into the fold was even more of a high wire act.
In addition, there would be no prayer allowed, which seemed to be more of a problem for the prison administration than for the participants, who seemed eager to learn and to change.
As Phillips filmed the men walking to the session, their modest possessions in tow, she was able to capture the pride the men had in undertaking something that everyone else had basically written off as an exercise that would allow them to slack off or to manipulate parole boards with.
They aren’t the thuggish monsters we are often led to believe death row inmates are (though there are plenty of those guys in this prison), but to the contrary, they are highly articulate, sensitive people, who through this deep self-realization exercise are finding new ways to cope with the horrors of their pasts. Phillips worried that she had failed her subjects and that her crew would never be allowed back at the prison, but after four long years, they were allowed back in and the men were once again given the privilege to meditate. When the men are glimpsed by Phillips, feeling comfortable enough to let down their guard long enough to hug one another or simply to flash a genuine smile to the camera, the documentary wildly succeeds in smashing preconceptions with candidly unforgettable, yet wrenching moments of humanness. Though he claims to have had nothing to do with the actual killing of the man murdered in front of him while he was drunk, he accepts his part in the crime and takes full responsibility for where he was and for what happened, even if it was just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Rather than directing rage at his daughter’s killer, he offers the man empathy, but most importantly, he is able to express what he was not shown, humanity and love. For more information on screenings around the country, please visit the film’s official website.
A die-hard cinephile and lover of pop culture, he spends his free time writing about what he is not working on. Behind high security towers and a double row of barbed wire and electrical fence live over 1,500 prisoners, many of whom will never again know life in the outside world.
Although the state famously decried segregation, there is still a painfully obvious disparity between the black, Latino and white populations and between those with money and those without. Or should more value be placed on these lives so many people are so keen to throw away, as they may one day end up back in our society?
Crying is not something the men are ashamed of, and being in tune with their emotions is OK. Most are quick to admit some form of culpability for their crimes, and most are seeking a way to simply face themselves in the mirror each day.
Phillips thought that “it would be very hard to fake 11 hours a day of sitting in silence and stillness.
Phillips offers this with her film and its reassurance that sometimes connections can be made in the most unlikely places. What more did they need to do to prove that anyone is capable of shaping their own destiny? But for some of these men, a spark is ignited when it becomes the first maximum-security prison in North America to hold an extended Vipassana retreat, an emotionally and physically demanding program of silent meditation lasting ten days and requiring 100 hours of meditation.

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